It was totally unexpected, but one of the outcomes of September 11, nonetheless:The West witnessed a mass renewal of interest in Islamic art. So observed Belinda Luscombe of Time.com about six months after the event. She reported Islamic art exhibitions as far afield as the Honolulu Academy of Art and Montreal Museum. Enrollment in Islamic art courses leapt across the college landscape. This was definitely a welcome trend.
Obviously, Muslims were very pleased to see it happen. If art is a true representation of a people's worldview and culture, then increased interest in Islamic art could not have taken place at a better time. Major art institutes and museums put together galleries and exhibitions. So too did a number of Muslim associations in countries across Europe and North America.
Better late than never. Now a number of Muslim countries have demonstrated a serious interest in exhibiting Islamic art. (Read the articles of Qatar's Doha Muslim Art Museum and the Exhibition Islam project out of London inside).
And while these efforts and the people behind them have done an exceptional job showcasing the Islamic arts-allowing people a taste of its beauty and educating them in its composition and cultures-one essential aspect of what Islamic art is all about has not received attention yet. It has to do with Islam itself.
Consider the following.
Contrary to other religious arts, Islamic art and architecture do not have or espouse any "religious" representation. The reason is simple: Islamic art stems from and is inspired by the teachings of Islam, which all conform to its core principle that God is to be worshipped alone by, not just us humans, but all that He created in this universe, including the heavens and the earth themselves, and all that is between them.That means no ascribing of partners to God and revering Him as is His unrivaled due as the Supreme Creator and Omni-Powerful Lord of all beings.
This distinguishing feature of Islam, called tawheed, and all it implies, entail that all are equal before Allah as created servants, having native creaturely rights and subject to the same obligations irrespective of race, culture, or place:
"O People! Behold! We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is the most righteous. Behold! Allah is all knowing, allaware" [49:13].
Scholars and specialists including many renowned artists acknowledge that while it is the purity of tawheed which has led people of all backgrounds throughout the ages to come into the realm of Islam wholeheartedly, it is in fact, its neutrality and fairness that made Islam adaptable to the cultures and arts they belonged to what Titus Burckhardt (whose essay on The Ka‘bah appears in this issue) termed the "void" in Islamic art.
Eventually, the cultures that embraced Islam self-changed and renovated (and revved up) their esthetic impulse with the teachings of Islam.They kept their distinctive local features.Yet there is no doubt that their inspired creativity is Islamic in nature. Real examples of this abound:The Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem, 692 CE), Alhambra Palace (Granada, 1238),Taj Mahal (India, 1632), and Sankore University (Timbuktu, early 15th. Century). None of these is in essence a place of worship, but it is common knowledge that they are all stunning examples of Islamic art and architecture.
In addition, it is not uncommon today for researchers and archeologists to find relics of Islamic arts everywhere the civilization of Islam illumined.
Tawheed tremendously influenced Islamic art in its proscription of figural representation of living beings especially man. And while it is true that the main reason for this is to emphasize that creating living things is unique to Allah, this prohibition has had an even more profound effect on the ways art impacts us, not the least one making art an esthetic that extends our own space and adds to our environment without us seeing ourselves repeated in it.
The source of artistic inspiration is yet another dimension tawheed infinitely grants to Muslims whether producing or using art.This is best stated, in my opinion, in the hadeeth of Prophet Muhammad, sallallahu alayhe wa sallam: "Indeed Allah is Beautiful and loves beauty," (Bukhari) and "Allah likes that if one does something he does it thoroughly" (Bayhaqi).Thus, for the Muslim, creating, utilizing, or sponsoring art is an act of worship.
These are but a few streams that run through the Muslim heart and mind when contemplating, making, or enjoying a piece of art at home or in public. One feels engaged, as in meditation, with his or her Lord. One experiences an instant sense of unity with the art and those behind it wherever they might be in Turkey, India, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, or in London.
Some Muslims lament that seemingly many in the West care little for Islam beyond its art and the delight it brings them.There may be truth in this. But ask yourself:What have you done to transform this inclination?
Art is, in fact, a natural gate to the two elements necessary to produce it: Islam or the source of guidance that gives it its unmistakable nature and Muslims who create it, for indeed art gives a truer and more accurate insight of those behind it and their environment.
We can begin by educating ourselves and others about these two elements which are natural parts of the ultimate ends of Islamic art. And without them, the nature, complexity, depth, and variety of human intentions and practices behind Islam will never be totally or correctly understood.